Press Release

August 14, 2023 | By Ericka Kurtz

Dream Designer

Ohio Wesleyan Graduate Shirley Paden-Bernstein Makes $1 Million Gift to Benefit First-Generation Students

Shirley Paden-Bernstein

DELAWARE, Ohio – President Matt vandenBerg announced today that Shirley Paden-Bernstein of New York City has made a five-year pledge of $1 million to Ohio Wesleyan University to support first-generation college student scholarships, the OWU Bridge Program, and other university initiatives.

A 1973 Ohio Wesleyan graduate, Paden-Bernstein was a first-generation college student from a family of eight living in the inner city of Philadelphia. Today she owns Shirley Paden Custom Knits and is a designer of custom hand-knit clothing. She also is an internationally recognized teacher, author, mentor, and philanthropist.

“This gift honors my mother, Ruth Paden, who did not have the opportunity to attend college,” Paden-Bernstein said. “First-generation students are the dream of the family. You see your parents, in my instance, working so hard and trying to do all they can, you want to honor that your whole life. Even now, I want to make them proud.”

“We are tremendously grateful to Shirley for her generosity and her dedication to student success and accessibility for all OWU students,” said vandenBerg, Ed.D. “Shirley recognizes that students may not arrive at Ohio Wesleyan from equal starting points. Her gift enables OWU to provide hardworking and resilient students with the resources they need to succeed in college and their chosen life paths. Thanks to Shirley’s investment in our students, we will further strengthen our ability to help students achieve their goals.”

One of every five Ohio Wesleyan students is the first in their family to attend college. Paden-Bernstein’s gift will support an initial group of five first-generation college students by closing the tuition gap after they receive merit scholarships and need-based aid. The scholarships also will provide an annual stipend for students to use for unanticipated costs such as medical expenses or emergency trips home.

Paden-Bernstein’s commitment also will support the Ohio Wesleyan Bridge Program, a three-week, credit-bearing residential experience program designed to equip first-year students with the skills they need to thrive at OWU. The program is open to all incoming first-year students, focusing on first-generation students, low-income students, students of color, and/or LGBTQIA+ students. The Bridge Program provides students with a group of friends before classes even begin and gives them an early, insider glimpse into the resources they need to know at OWU and what life is like on campus.

“This summer, 33 students participated in the Bridge Program, which is the largest class we’ve had yet,” said Jason Timpson, director of Multicultural Student Affairs. “Our goal is to take college students and help them transition from their lives before OWU into life here at Ohio Wesleyan. It builds all kinds of skills, and one of the things we talk about is advocating for themselves.”

Travel is a significant component of the Bridge Program as an introductory step for students into the OWU Connection and the world of travel at Ohio Wesleyan. “During our time in Kentucky,” Timpson said, “we talk about gentrification and activism, and history and what those things look like.”

In addition to first-generation scholarships and the Ohio Wesleyan Bridge Program, Paden-Bernstein’s gift will support the Ohio Wesleyan Fund, which provides the university with the ability to support the greatest areas of need, such as scholarships, faculty support, campus programming, and emergency needs. Her gift also will support the President’s Circle, which provides the president with a discretionary spending fund essential to jump-starting strategic work and innovative programs at OWU.

Paden-Bernstein’s support complements Ohio Wesleyan’s initiative of supporting first-generation students and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

“Shirley’s story shines a light on the life-changing potential of an OWU education,” said Jake McNabb, senior major gifts officer. “From her accomplished career as an industry leader in knitwear design to her personal warmth and generosity, Shirley exemplifies what it means to be part of the Bishop community.”

“Shirley’s remarkable support shows that even after 50 years, OWU alumni can play a pivotal role in empowering the next generation of Bishops,” said Makenna Daniels, associate director of advancement and a 2015 Ohio Wesleyan graduate. “We’re excited to see her gift at work in the lives of first-generation students at OWU.”

Ohio Wesleyan is one of 76 colleges and universities nationwide selected by the national Center for First-generation Student Success for membership in the 2023-2024 First Scholars Network, created to help first-generation college students thrive and persist to graduation. OWU is one of only 349 colleges and universities in the group overall.

Learn more about being a first-generation student at Ohio Wesleyan at, more about DEI at, and more about supporting OWU at

Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers more than 70 undergraduate majors and competes in 24 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through its signature experience, the OWU Connection, Ohio Wesleyan teaches students to understand issues from multiple academic perspectives, volunteer in service to others, build a diverse and global perspective, and translate classroom knowledge into real-world experience through internships, research, and other hands-on learning. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” and included on the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “Best Colleges” lists. Connect with OWU expert interview sources at or learn more at